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Haiti: Leaked Cables Expose U.S. Suppression of Min. Wage, Election Doubts and Elite’s Private Army

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Drawing on almost 2,000 classified U.S. diplomatic cables on Haiti released by WikiLeaks, a partnership between The Nation magazine and the Haitian weekly, Haïti Liberté, exposes new details on how Fruit of the Loom, Hanes and Levi’s worked with the United States to block an increase in the minimum wage in the hemisphere’s poorest nation, how business owners and members of the country’s elite used Haiti’s police force as their own private army after the 2004 U.S.-backed coup that ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and how the United States, the European Union and the United Nations supported Haiti’s recent presidential and parliamentary elections, despite concerns over the exclusion of Haiti’s largest opposition party, Lavalas, the party of Aristide. We speak with the reports’ authors, longtime Haiti correspondent Dan Coughlin and Haïti Liberté editor, Kim Ives. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: A new exposé on Haiti shows how business owners and members of the country’s elite used Haiti’s police force as their own private army, giving them guns and ammunition, after the 2004 U.S.-backed coup that ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. It’s part of a series of reports that draw from almost 2,000 U.S. diplomatic cables on Haiti released by WikiLeaks. The series is a partnership between The Nation magazine and the Haitian weekly newspaper, Haïti Liberté. The cables cover an almost seven-year period, from April 2003 to February 2010, just after the earthquake that devastated the capital of Port-au-Prince and surrounding cities.

AMY GOODMAN: Another recent exposé details how the United States, the European Union and the United Nations supported Haiti’s recent presidential and parliamentary elections despite concerns that the country had unfairly excluded Haiti’s largest opposition party, Lavalas, the party of Aristide.

And a third report in the series explains how contractors for Fruit of the Loom, Hanes and Levi’s worked with the U.S. embassy to aggressively block a minimum wage increase for Haitian assembly zone workers, the lowest-paid workers in the hemisphere, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.

We’re joined now by the two the authors of these reports: veteran Haiti correspondent Dan Coughlin and Haïti Liberté editor Kim Ives. Dan covered Haiti for the Inter Press Service from the United Nations and Port-au-Prince between ’92 and ’96, currently executive director of Manhattan Neighborhood Network, MNN, and writes for The Nation magazine.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Kim, why don’t you start off just outlining the latest revelations that you’ve gotten from these WikiLeaks documents and what these documents are? They’re U.S. government cables.

KIM IVES: Yeah, well, the U.S. government cables are part of the 250,000 confidential and secret cables that WikiLeaks got from the diplomatic service, from the State Department. Essentially, since we were on last talking about PetroCaribe, we’ve had four major stories, which are that they were blocking the hiking of the minimum wage from a buck-seventy-five a day to $5. They wanted to $3, and that’s what they won, working with Haitian assembly industry owners.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Who was trying to raise the minimum wage?

KIM IVES: That was the people. There was a movement on the ground of students, workers and the general public, which wanted to see it go up.

AMY GOODMAN: And who was blocking?

KIM IVES: That was the assembly industry owners and the U.S., working with them. The two of them worked together to basically bring in Préval to stop it and set it down to three bucks a day. So, that was one. At the same time, they were going into an election, which was clearly flawed. They knew it. And they had a meeting, and they said, “OK, the”—

AMY GOODMAN: This is the U.S.?

KIM IVES: Yeah, the U.S., along with the E.U., U.N. and a numb er of other so-called friends of Haiti, sat down and said, “OK, we’re going to fund this election, even though we know from the start that it’s flawed.” And they had a meeting and said, “OK, we’re going to rubberstamp it and pay for it, even though we know it’s flawed,” and at the same time saying they were going to pay for the right-wing opposition, the National Endowment for Democracy-funded opposition, by buying them radio time and so forth.

We also had a story last week that was by Ansel Herz about the way the U.S. came in with their military right after the earthquake and, with no clearance from Préval, decided to bring in 22,000 troops. When the people needed doctors and engineers and so forth, here were soldiers patrolling the street and blocking the hospital, as we saw, Amy.

And finally, this week, we have the question of the bourgeoisie turning the police into their own private army.

DAN COUGHLIN: And what these cables show, Amy, is really remarkable. It’s like the curtain being pulled from behind the Wizard of Oz, a really inside look at what the U.S. policy is in Haiti, the materially poorest country in the Western hemisphere. So they’re blocking a preferential trade deal with Venezuela that means huge stability for the Haitian people, stable electricity supply, $100 million in extra funding for the government, which they use for social programs.

We see the manipulation, extraordinary manipulation, of Haiti’s presidential election, where, quote-unquote, the international community recognizes that the opposition is “emasculated.” So why are we bothering to have an election, if the most popular political party has been banned? And you see in these cables, the Canadians and others are like a little concerned. Hey, how are we going to have an election here? And literally, the head of the E.U. in Haiti—

AMY GOODMAN: European Union.

DAN COUGHLIN: —the head of the U.N., the head of—the Spanish ambassador, the Brazilian ambassador, the U.S. ambassador, at a meeting, at a table, discussing this. And finally, they decide, “Oh, we have too much invested in Haiti not to let these fraudulent elections move forward.”

AMY GOODMAN: It’s like the Republicans have the Democrats banned in the United States. You know, Democracy Now! went with Jean-Bertrand Aristide, returned with him from South Africa, where he was in exile for seven years, to Haiti. We were on the plane when he returned. At the airport, when we landed, he was greeted by thousands of supporters. He addressed the crowd in several languages. When he spoke in English, he said, “Exclusion is the problem. Inclusion is the solution”—not directly referencing his party, Fanmi Lavalas, which was excluded from the election, but when he addressed the Haitians in Creole, in their language, he was much more explicit.

JEAN-BERTRAND ARISTIDE: [translated] You are right. If we don’t salvage our dignity, our dignity will be gone. Yes, you are right, because the problem is exclusion, and the solution is inclusion. The exclusion of Fanmi Lavalas is the exclusion of the majority. The exclusion of the majority means that you are cutting off exactly the branch that we are all sitting on. The problem is exclusion; the solution is inclusion of all Haitians without discrimination, because everybody is a person.

AMY GOODMAN: That was President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, March 18th, just a few months ago, on the tarmac at the airport in Port-au-Prince, addressing that his party, the main party, was excluded from the election. And you’re saying the documents show the U.S. said we’ve got—they recognized it was a massive problem, but they said they were going to push it through, the elections.

DAN COUGHLIN: Yeah, absolutely. Not only were they going to push it through, they were even considering then—they even discussed a plan to actually help some of the right-wing opposition parties to get on the air, to put them on the Haitian media, in order to try to, what they considered, balance the playing field, though in fact the largest political party would still be barred. But they were out there trying to actually intervene in the Haitian sovereign election process. And, of course, in the cables, it shows they don’t care. It’s not an issue for anybody that, oh, they’re intervening in a local election and on the side of some parties against the other. They’re just interested in pushing through their candidate.

KIM IVES: And that’s what really comes out in it, was that you see, for the Lavalas Family, they felt more that it would look bad. But for the other ones, they were really concerned that they fare well, that they had been emasculated, that they were somehow disadvantaged, even though they were the ones that got millions of dollars through the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, these two tentacles of the NED that go into Haiti.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Dan, I’m wondering if you could be a little more specific in terms of this attempt to block the trade deal with Venezuela, specifically what the cables, some of them, said in terms of reporting—I guess they were reporting back to Washington what was going on?

DAN COUGHLIN: Yeah, and you could see that specific detail on Haiti-Liberte.com’s website and on TheNation.com, as well. But what happened is, Chevron and Exxon Mobil, amongst other oil companies, in conjunction with the U.S. embassy, tried to block this deal by putting enormous pressure on President Préval to stop the oil from coming in and the deal with Chávez to happen. And in fact, when Préval visited President Bush in the White House, this was the main issue of conversation, was Haiti’s relationship with Venezuela, Haiti’s attempt to get energy independence. And so, you see how they maneuver, what strings they pull, how they’re constantly applying pressure on Haiti, whether it’s to keep the minimum wage low, to stop energy independence, to have their people win the election. And—

KIM IVES: We also see it in the case of the “gold rush”—that’s the words of Ambassador Kenneth Merten—that came after the earthquake.

AMY GOODMAN: The U.S. ambassador.

KIM IVES: The U.S. ambassador said there’s a gold rush right now, because the gold was all these billions of dollars going to Haiti, and our contractors, U.S. contractors, are going to get it. So you had people like General Wesley Clark going down and fronting for a company called InnoVida, which put up these apparently completely worthless foam core construction houses, supposedly donating thousands, and another company called AshBritt based out of Pompano Beach, which were all going down basically to get a part of the booty, this disaster capitalism run amok. So we see, you know, the U.S. basically rubbing their hands, along with these people.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk, Dan, about the U.S. corporations and the minimum wage. Name the corporations. And what were they doing with the United States?

DAN COUGHLIN: Well, Haiti was the original runaway shop back in the '70s, when American companies, trying to flee U.S. workers, U.S. unions, moved to Haiti. If you remember, it was famous for baseball production back in the ’70s. So it's always been an offshore, tax-free, low-wage, no worker—minimal worker rights, minimal environmental regulations in Haiti. It’s just a free trade zone. So it’s been developed like that intermittently over the last 40 years. But Haitians object to this, because they’re mistreated, poorly paid, and so there’s a lot of resistance to it.

But companies like Hanes, Fruit of the Loom, Levi Strauss, these are named in the cables, who use these contractors to make, manufacture undergarments, T-shirts, in Haiti itself as a very low-waged center, in fact the lowest-wage center in the hemisphere. And it’s acknowledged as such, the poorest-paid, the lowest-paid workers in the hemisphere. These assembly zone contractors, who have these contracts with Hanes and Fruit of the Loom, are putting enormous pressure, with the U.S. embassy, on the Haitian parliament not to increase the minimum wage, because they claim that this will devastate the industry. This is the same argument that they’ve used time and time again. But these are the poorest-paid workers in the hemisphere. They can hardly eat. I think a third of the population of Haiti requires some food assistance.

KIM IVES: And Amy, this bourgeoisie that is carrying this out is the same one that is behind the coups that are happening in Haiti, that backed the coup. We’re going to have a piece shortly showing, through the cables, exactly how much they were behind the coup. And they’re also the ones who are turning the Haitian police into a private army.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, I was going to ask about that.


JUAN GONZALEZ: You mention specifically Fritz Mevs, the son of one of the richest families in Haiti—

KIM IVES: Right.

JUAN GONZALEZ: —admitting, essentially, how they were supplying guns to the police force in exchange for them defending them.

KIM IVES: Yeah, essentially, what they had done, they had bought off one of the popular leaders of Cité Soleil, and he had actually been killed by, essentially, other groups in Cité Soleil who saw that he was a turncoat and defending the coup and defending the occupation and the bourgeoisie’s property. And so, when he was knocked out, the bourgeoisie panicked, and they said, “OK, we’re going to start to fund the police.” And the U.N. was useless, because—or not useless, but not as effective as Labaniere. And so, basically, they backed the police, and it went all the way ’til they carried out a tremendous massacre on July 6, 2005, where dozens of people were killed, including Dread Wilme, who had been the leader of this resistance in Cité Soleil to the coup and occupation.

AMY GOODMAN: Democracy Now! spoke with Haiti’s former first lady, Mildred Aristide, on March 18th, the historic day that the Aristides flew back from South Africa to Haiti. I spoke to her about her husband’s return to Haiti and why she thinks the U.S. tried to stop the trip.

MILDRED ARISTIDE: Everyone knows that it is a horrific situation that the country is living in now, and with the earthquake. And so, when they say they want Aristide present, to me, I see that as to be to accompany them in this process, as he accompanied them as a priest when he was a priest, as an educator when he was teaching, as president when he was president, and now as a citizen, as a former president, and as someone who will continue and will work on expanding the work of the foundation in that capacity. And, you know, to say that it’s the past is just really a crazy notion.

AMY GOODMAN: So, two U.S-backed coups, 1991 and 2004, and now the U.S.—well, President Obama calling President Zuma to say, “Do not fly the Aristides home to Haiti.”

MILDRED ARISTIDE: I think—again, I think it’s—it’s an inability, maybe, by the American political process to understand the kind of relation that Titide has with the Haitian people, and it doesn’t fit within the kind of policy frameworks that perhaps they have of—and so, it’s an unwillingness to see beyond that. I’ll attribute it to that. And, you know, in the meanwhile—

AMY GOODMAN: Explain a little more what you mean.

MILDRED ARISTIDE: Well, I think that—I think that the United States and a lot of those western European countries see politics a certain way, and I think that they have no right to impose that on other peoples.

AMY GOODMAN: That was the former first lady of Haiti, Mildred Aristide, as she was about to land for the first time President Aristide was returning to Haiti in seven years after he was ousted in a U.S.-backed coup, the second coup backed by the U.S. Dan?

DAN COUGHLIN: Well, she really understates the situation, because between 2004 and 2006, 3,000 people were killed. There was a bloody repression in Haiti during that period, with real issues at stake. And you see that in the cables time and time again, where the Haitian elite, for instance, you know, is putting huge pressure on the U.S. and the U.N. and the Haitian police to act in its interest to attack and to murder, to kill pro-Aristide, pro-democracy individuals in the poorest slum in the hemisphere.

And by “poor” I mean—you see the cables. What are the people fighting with in Cité Soleil? You know what they’re fighting with? It says fecal matter. They’re burning sewage to try to keep the U.N. out of Cité Soleil, to stop the shooting, the killing of themselves. These are people who are literally naked, who are hungry, who have no clothes. And they’re fighting the biggest armies in the world, just like they did 200 years ago. And when you talk to the people, they see it as part of that same struggle, against the Napoleonic armies, against the British Empire, against the Spanish Empire from 200 years ago. Now they’re fighting the Brazilian army, the eighth-largest army in the world. the U.S. Army, the U.N. occupation, to keep them poor. And this is the struggle that is happening. And Aristide did represent these poor people. And that’s why he had to be overthrown.

KIM IVES: I should also say that I just did a piece in The Guardian about—drawing on some letters that my grandfather had written from the Mexican embassy back in 1926, where he was saying—

AMY GOODMAN: Who was your grandfather doing there?

KIM IVES: He was actually a guest of the ambassador at the time. Sheffield was his name. And he was saying that we probably shouldn’t be forcing the Mexicans to take our industry and our investments; forcing it is going to bring great unhappiness. And yet—I compared it to this—now, here we are again, almost a century later, and we still have the U.S. forcing its agenda, its interests, on these countries, through these diplomatic intrigues that we see in WikiLeaks, or through economic sanctions, or through outright war.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, of course, though, the earthquake there in Haiti had to be the most cataclysmic event in the history of the country, but the cables also show that there was a sense in U.S. government already that the country was prone to a major earthquake?

KIM IVES: Well, yes. On May 11th, 2005, there was a 4.3-level earthquake in Haiti, and it didn’t do much damage, but that was a warning to them, and they were aware. And they said, “Man, if there’s an earthquake here, it’s going to be the worst thing that could happen. Haiti is in no way prepared to deal with any catastrophe like that.” And they said, you know, “Let’s get preparations.” But nothing was done, clearly.

AMY GOODMAN: Democracy Now! was mentioned in the cables, Dan Coughlin?

DAN COUGHLIN: One cable, actually released previously through a FOIA request, a Freedom of Information Act request, by Professor [Keith] Yearman at the College of DuPage in Illinois, where I think, Amy, you did a piece, again, back in July of 2005, exactly about Cité Soleil and what the—and a U.N. massacre there, that we’re talking about.

KIM IVES: With Seth Donnelly.

DAN COUGHLIN: With a person from a labor delegation out of San Francisco, Seth Donnelly. And so, you actually accurately reported what was going on, and the embassy was alarmed by it and reported on Democracy Now! and other groups, saying, “Hey”—what they were upset about was that there wasn’t push back, PR push back, on Democracy Now! by the U.N.

KIM IVES: And that’s what—and that’s what Hillary Clinton was coming with when she was saying, “We have to get the narrative right.” And they were calling—and we see that in one of the cables after the militarization, calling around to embassies around the world to tell them to go after the editors, go after—if there’s anything, if it’s in Ecuador or if it’s in Doha or if it’s in Thailand, go and fight back against any negative portrayal of the U.S. deployment after the quake. So they want to make sure that they get the narrative right. And you got it wrong, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: The next installment?

DAN COUGHLIN: Well, there’s a lot—a lot to go through, obviously. WikiLeaks, in general, is going from country to country, releasing thousands of cables, extraordinary stories all around the world happening every day, and local, smaller countries around the world, like Haiti. And the work that Haïti Liberté has done is amazing, and they go into much more detail in their publication on these cables. But there’s going to be hundreds more released from the Haiti trove, including a special next week on the Haitian parliament and what’s happening with Haitian parliament.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you very much for being with us, Dan Coughlin, executive director of Manhattan Neighborhood Network, and Kim Ives, who together are doing “WikiLeaks Haiti,” publishing them in Haïti Liberté and The Nation magazine.

And on the issue of WikiLeaks, for our international viewers and listeners and readers, especially those in Britain, I’ll be moderating a panel between Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, and the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek on July 2nd in the afternoon in London at the Troxy. And folks will be able to watch it on our website at democracynow.org. And if you’re there, you can come on out, and you can be a part of that discussion. So just check out our website at democracynow.org.

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